Jon Ingold is the Creative Director at Inkle, an indie studio known (but not well enough!) for making beautiful, literate, text-based narrative games such as Heaven’s Vault and 80 Days. They’ve just come out with Pendragon, a “narrative roguelike” about the final battle of the Arthurian era. Appropriately, this is a written interview – I sent him questions, and some follow-ups, and he wrote the answers down. This is quite a bit less work for me, though thinking up good questions is still half the work.
Alex: What phase of game development are you in currently? What do you actually do in a day?
Jon: We just shipped a game, Pendragon, so right now I am in a “doodling” phase, while I try to come up with an idea that excites me enough to work on it! I usually have two or three prototypes kicking around at any time, so the hope is one of them will turn into something intriguing!
Meanwhile, there’s company stuff to handle, and inkle’s cofounder Joe is spearheading our next game, and I’m doing a little work towards that occasionally.
Alex: Who are the people you have to make happy, and how do you keep them happy?
Jon: One of the nice things about running a studio is there’s no one above us we have to please: we make games we believe in, and we make them the way they think they ought to be made. So the only people we really have to make happy are our players, though we never really seem to know who they are, or what they like… they come and go! So we try to keep ourselves happy, and make the things we want to make.
Alex: I’m surprised you don’t know who they are. Surely you must have a fan base? I’m sure I’m not the only player who thought, “Pendragon? By the folks who made 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault? Yes, please.” Is it that as an indie you have only limited resources for community management?
Jon: We have a Discord server which has a community of people we recognise, and there are some familiar faces on Twitter - but otherwise there isn’t a space for “fans” to really congregate and become visible. It’s particularly a problem coming from mobile development - Apple creates a solid wall between developers and customers; which has some benefits - you don’t have to moderate the racists yourself - but it also means it’s impossible to, say, tell people who bought 80 Days that a new game has come out.
The problem is always reach, rather that community management. We can announce Pendragon to our circle, but it’s still going to be the case that 90% of the people who would be interested to hear about it will never hear about it. Even Heaven’s Vault is still being discovered, despite awards, reviews and a year and a half!
But it’s also our fault for constantly changing platforms. A lot of people who enjoyed 80 Days are probably waiting for the iPad version of Heaven’s Vault, and so on.
Alex: What are the hardest battles you fight?
Jon: The hardest creative battle is avoiding cliché. Writing in games has to fit itself around what the player can do, same as storylines in spy TV shows have to make space for a car chase, a couple of fights and a third-act twist. But each scene has got to be different, and interesting. You can’t just have a character tell you to take an object to another character in return for some gold. You can’t. You mustn’t. But the temptation to write the easiest storyline, to just recycle the same flow over, can be very strong.
The hardest actual battle we fight is being seen. Indie games appear, then disappear, taking whole studios with them. Every month we’re asking ourselves the question, how to do we help inkle’s games to stay relevant, to stay remarked upon? It’s a battle we’ll always lose in the end - I recently saw a “10 best video games based on novels” list that didn’t include 80 Days - but every little thing we can do keeps the lights on for a little longer.
Alex: Cheer up — maybe the reviewer never heard of Jules Verne!
One of the striking things about your adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days” was how you guys changed its world from the colonial one that really existed to one where places like Haiti are strong and sovereign and have their own steampunk technology. When did that idea come up and what went into that decision?
Jon: The core concept was design - we needed there to be good reasons for a player to go to, say, South Africa, even though it’s definitely going the wrong direction. We also played into the fact that most people haven’t read Verne’s book, and assume it’s steampunk, because we associate Verne with steampunk (mostly because of the end of the Back to the Future III, I think.)
Meg Jayanth took that idea and developed it, introducing the idea of non-steam steampunk for places where water was too valuable to waste. That was a brilliant piece of world-building which she grew out to cover the various regions we wrote about.
Alex: Is it important to have a voice as a video game writer, or is it better to be a chameleon? How did you find your voice?
Jon: If you’re a freelancing professional, I’m sure you need to be a chameleon; and I often think that ideally a professional writer can write anything, and if they can’t, they can learn. For me, though, I’m determined to have some kind of voice. We flit between genres and styles and different kinds of frames, but I always want our games to have characters, to have humanity, to have intelligence, and to be about something.
I think I found my way to my style the long way round: bouncing between writing things that were “all me” that no one else could get much enjoyment from and writing things weren’t at all me, that came out a little vanilla, a bit oddly echoey.